Nov. 23, 2021. As winter and the holiday season approach, Vermont’s COVID-19 cases counts are surging, putting Vermont near the top of states reporting new COVID-19 cases. Yesterday, in an extraordinarily unusual move, Governor Scott called the legislature into a one-day special session to consider granting cities, towns, and villages temporary authority to establish face covering requirements in public places within the boundaries of their jurisdictions. In the last several weeks, the governor made it clear that while his administration is doing everything possible to encourage people to get vaccinated, wear face coverings while indoors in public places or in close confines, and practice social distancing, especially indoors, he does not support re-imposing a mask mandate and would not establish such a requirement statewide. His administration likewise would not make use of Title 18 section 613, which reads,
§ 613. Powers of local board.
(a) A local board of health may make and enforce rules in such town or city relating to the prevention, removal, or destruction of public health hazards and the mitigation of public health risks, provided that such rules have been approved by the Commissioner. Such rules shall be posted and published in the same manner that ordinances of the municipality are required to be posted and published.
In August, the governor denied a petition from the Town of Brattleboro to re-impose a masking requirement pursuant to that law. No town has since taken up the issue, there being no point when a denial of permission was certain.
Last week, Scott did offer the legislature the option of passing a law to authorize cities, towns, and villages to establish such requirements on a temporary basis, on the condition that the bill not deviate from the draft the administration had prepared.
On Monday, the legislature considered a single bill: S.1. The Senate, having taken testimony last week, debated, amended, and passed the bill in the early afternoon. At the same time, the House Government Operations Committee took testimony on the bill, including from your Advocacy staff. We thanked the committee for taking up the matter since no statewide mask mandate would be forthcoming. We also answered questions about the historic authority to enact health orders; the names of the municipalities that might discuss, adopt, and implement a mask requirement; and the ability of local government to undertake such efforts.
The bill, which passed the House in the early evening, authorizes towns, cities, and villages to establish masking requirements through rule. A local legislative body may initially adopt the masking requirement for up to 45 days and may renew it subsequently for 30-day periods through April 30, 2022. The rule would not be subject to petition and could take effect immediately upon adoption at a duly warned regular or special meeting of the local legislative body. The rule would not apply to schools. The VLCT Municipal Assistance Center can help answer questions regarding the details of S.1.
S.1 is a permissive grant of authority and not a mandate – the helpful kind of authority that local governments request of the legislature.
Governor Scott signed the legislation today.
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